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Breastfeeding a strange paradox. It is challenging and exhausting and frustrating and amazing and beautiful all at once. It hands down the hardest thing I have ever done in my life and also one of the most worthwhile. Here is my story...
Breastfeeding my babies is something I always kind of just assumed I would do. I wasn't one of those women who was super excited about it or anything, but I had read a lot about the benefits and figured since there were so many good reasons to do it, I probably should. I didn't really think a ton about nursing before giving birth aside from a half day breastfeeding class I took. I nodded and smiled through the class, but afterward my thoughts quickly moved on to more pressing matters like the natural birth I was preparing for. I was wholly engrossed with preparing for a drug-free water birth, so that's what I did.
I ended up giving birth, just the way I had hoped, to a sweet baby girl on a snowy day in January. She weighed 8 pounds 7 ounces and aside from her fairly squished head, she was perfect. Now came the breastfeeding part. The part that was supposed to be the most natural thing in the world. I just gave birth to a human child without so much as an asprin, so obviously this would be a piece of cake. Except that it wasn't. It was really hard. For something that was supposed to be so "natural" it definitely didn't come naturally.
By the time my husband and I were about to leave the birth center with our new baby, she had lost one ounce shy of a pound. Our midwives were really concerned about the weight loss, but we all figured things would improve once my milk came in. But it didn't come in very quickly. It didn't come in until day six and by then my baby was super hungry and pissed off. By day three, I was supplementing with donor breast milk that I received from a kind stranger, but it wasn't really enough for my baby's growing appetite, so she cried...a lot.
I worried that supplementing with formula was akin to feeding my baby arsenic and so I continued with the donated breast milk and rationed it like crazy. I also didn't give it to my baby in a bottle, because "nipple confusion" apparently. I used an SNS feeding system - a syringe attached to a tube, taped to my breast - and fed her the milk that way. It was tiresome, but I did it. Still, she wasn't gaining weight.
I cried...a lot. I cried so much that sometimes it felt like I might drown in tears and breast milk.
So I pumped and pumped and pumped some more all in the name of increasing my supply. I pumped after every feeding - usually 10 times a day - yielding maybe 3 ounces over the course of an entire day... on a good day. I took placenta pills. I took tinctures of fennel and blessed thistle and goats rue and whatever else is supposed to increase one's supply. I saw lactation consultants on lactation consultants. I went to a weekly breastfeeding support group where all of us just pretty much sat around a cried with our boobs out as we tried to feed out babies. We tried craniosacral therapy and a frenectomy to improve my daughter's latch. We tried everything and even so it took her six weeks to get back to her birth weight. And her gain from there was slow going.
I cried...a lot. I cried so much that sometimes it felt like I might drown in tears and breast milk. I felt like my entire life was consumed by breastfeeding and breastfeeding related activities. I was overwhelmed and resentful and had a really difficult time bonding with my daughter. And then, around the time my daughter reached three months of age, my husband had a come-to-Jesus-talk with me.
Despite the low lows I went through with nursing, I am thankful for them.
He told me that he would support me no matter what, but at this point I had done my best, but supplementing with formula would not be the end of the world. And so we did. When we gave her that first bottle, I cried. But, then I saw how calm and happy she was and that made me feel calm and happy for the first time in nearly three months. And so it went that I nursed half the time and supplemented with formula the other half of the time until my daughter was 17-months-old and self-weaned. In the end I was both sad and relieved that it was over.
And then I had my son two-and-a-half years later. I fully braced myself for more of the same struggles I had experienced with my daughter, but those struggles never came. My breastfeeding experience with him has been a redemptive one in so many ways. He was a fat, little babe from the start (a whopping 10 pounds 8 ounces!), so I didn't fret over lost weight as I had with my daughter. My milk came in on time and I had exactly the right amount. I've only leaked a couple of times ever and never get engorged, but somehow he has always had just the right amount and gains weight like a champ. On the flip side he does eat a lot and has always refused to take a bottle, but I'll take it! I don't mind not having to wash bottles or buy formula anyway. At 10 months we are still going strong, though he is such a busy boy, I have a feeling he'll be on to bigger and better things sooner rather than later.
My experiences with breastfeeding have spanned the spectrum; I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. But, in the end I have emerged with perspective. Despite the low lows I went through with nursing, I am thankful for them. They created empathy in me for other moms and their struggles. Had I not gone through challenges, I might have been more apt to judge other moms and their parenting choices, without even considering that I didn't have the whole story.
I remember being on the receiving end of some judgement a time or two while bottle feeding my daughter and I remember thinking, "If only you knew how hard I fought for this. If only you knew what I went through to even be able to breastfeed half the time." I could've easily been that judging person, silently wondering with not-so-veiled expressions why that mama wasn't choosing "the best option" for feeding her baby. Now I know. Whether by choice or circumstance, we all make the decisions that are best for us and our families and that is OK... great, even.